Skip to main content
Original Issue

Clean wins for determined non-jerks

They came along different paths, one a Little Leaguer with big-league ambitions, the other a body-builder with eyes only for his biceps. They got the message, though, and lifted straight to national championships

His name is Lowe, and he is—low to the ground and thick like a fireplug, 5'3" and 165 pounds. But that is a good way to be when absurdly heavy weights are always lying at one's feet, and the job is to lift them skyward. Last week in Williamsburg, Va., Fred Lowe did his job, his alltime job, 396¾ pounds worth, an American middleweight record in the clean and jerk, a phrase that is considerably less of a sports byword than, say, hit-and-run or fast break, but one nevertheless that connotes all levels of meaning to that small band of athletes who chase their fame as weight lifters.

There is nothing particularly clean about the clean and jerk, and no one who saw Fred Lowe in Williamsburg will ever use the other word to describe him. Not, at least, to his face, a face that grew contorted and dark as the big moment neared. Oh, Lowe was a fearsome sight. His lips curled in silent rage. He glared at the 396¾ pounds, at the Olympic bar, at the six big steel plates, 18 inches across, at the four smaller ones. His breathing came fast and deep. It was one of the premier self-psychings of the day. It seemed that at any moment smoke and flames would dart from Lowe's nostrils. Back and forth he paced, and suddenly his hands were on the bar. The cords in his arms and legs stood out, and he got the bar to his chest—the clean. Then came the jerk, and the 396¾ pounds were extended at arm's length overhead. The old record—395 pounds—was finally broken. The applause rose, and when the record weights came crashing down it continued, on and on. To the knowing spectators at the Senior National AAU Weightlifting Championships this, after all, was what the huffing was all about.

Lowe stepped forward and looked for a moment as if he were about to deliver an oration. But he smiled, blew a kiss to the grandstand and bowed deeply. He said later, "I love crowds. I feel an influx of power when I'm near one." Lowe's long hair was tied in two little pigtails and, fleetingly, he looked like a very chunky little girl at her first ballet recital.

But all the posturing was only for the American record. Now there was a world record to try for, and the beast was reborn. It would take 10 minutes to weigh the barbell and make the U.S. record official, 10 minutes in which Lowe could stew himself into another ugly edge. He sat making full use of his time when someone said, "Come on, Fred." He left the warmup room, grim and silent and alone, looking like a man walking his last mile. After an ammonia bottle was thrust to his nostrils he grabbed the bar, loaded to 415 pounds this time. Quickly he failed, unable to clean the weight. On his second attempt, allowed when a world record is at stake, he failed again. But Lowe said he was not disappointed. In winning his second-straight national championship he had led his weight class easily. Besides, he had a strong personal interest in the American record set in 1968. For four years he had failed to break it. Now, he said grinning, he had finally surpassed a great lift by a great lifter. Not everyone knew that the lifter's name was Fred Lowe.

The clean and jerk at Williamsburg was only half of the competitors' burden. The first half was the snatch, which sounds more like an event peopled by pickpockets. Indeed, the snatch is one of the more diabolical doings in sport. Where does the lifter's leverage come from? The bar goes straight overhead, whoosh, as the legs collapse in a squat or a split. At last the lifter stands up under the weight and voilà! the snatch, impossible but true.

Fred Lowe's best snatch at Williamsburg was 297½ pounds, only 8½ pounds off the American record and more than 27½ pounds better than any other in his class. Thus, even before his clean and jerk it was obvious the other 165-pounders were in trouble. They were never, however, even remotely as bad off as the 198-pounders, the mid-heavies, who had to take on Rick Holbrook, winner of the last two nationals, 1972's Weight Lifter of the Year and holder of the U.S. snatch record of 341¾ pounds for the class.

And how Holbrook had trained for this one: six workouts each week, protein shakes at his coffee breaks, handfuls of vitamins each day, training, training, planning, planning. "Winning is important to me," he said, "but what I really want is records."

Unfortunately, Holbrook took this moment to display an old trait, the all-too-human one of being Rick Holbrook. At 5'11" he is possibly the world's tallest, and slimmest, mid-heavy, and speed and technique are his strengths. Never a man to relax before big competitions, he has in the past gone from brilliance to ignominy in successive meets. At Williamsburg he shocked everybody by weighing in at 188½, by far the lightest in his class. He had lost four pounds overnight, and he did not know how. He had not thrown up for three consecutive days, as he did before the 1970 World Games, and yet he seemed haunted and hollow-eyed as his turn to snatch approached. He opened trying 319½ pounds, a safe weight it seemed, but he dropped the barbell behind him. He tried the same weight again and failed. Finally, on his last try before being disqualified, he made his snatch—barely. His disgust was plain to see, although he entered the clean and jerk with a 5½-pound lead.

Triumph, as he must have foreseen, was not to be his. What happened prompted one announcer (unofficially dubbed "Mr. Sensitivity") to exclaim through the mike when Holbrook was through, "Ladies and gentlemen, Rick Holbrook has bombed out of competition." At Munich, where he finished fifth, Holbrook had led all mid-heavies with a clean and jerk of 435½ pounds, but at Williamsburg he missed three times at lower weight, 418¾. Phil Grippaldi, long his closest American competitor, won.

Grippaldi is only 5'7" and has huge arms—not the best build for snatching, where he managed 308½ pounds to Holbrook's 319½. The clean and jerk is his forte. At Munich, where he felt a terrible pain above his knee, he declined his last clean and jerk when it seemed he could have won the bronze medal. The doctor in attendance told Grippaldi that his lifting career was over, but there he was at Williamsburg, saying, "I live with aches and pains."

Grippaldi is the perfect example of the weight lifter who succeeds despite himself. Like Holbrook he began lifting at the age of 13, which seems to be the right time for future champions, but unlike Holbrook he had this thing about big arms. Working out with a barbell in a neighbor's garage, he developed a full set of body-builder's muscles by the time he was 17. They might be just the thing for the beach but they are awful for lifting. Grippaldi's biceps measured a grotesque—he thought magnificent—20¾". Then he heard about Olympic-style lifting, and it took him three years just to loosen up his arms. In 1967, at 20, he won the nationals and the Pan-American Games, and in 1968 he finished seventh at Mexico City. By Williamsburg, his arms had shrunk to 19", still the largest in competitive weight lifting.

Another American weight lifter finished eighth at Mexico City. He was Fred Lowe, who had arrived there by his own circuitous route. As a 4'10", 90-pound 11-year-old he was pitching Little League no-hitters. He sprouted to 5'3" by his junior year in high school, had a 6-3 wrestling record and hit .445 in baseball. Sadly, he recalls, he got no big-league offers. "Something told me I wasn't suited for baseball," he says, "and I lacked the leverage to be a top wrestler." Occasionally he fooled around with barbells. When he was 18 a cousin taught him the Olympic lifts, and he was launched. That was in 1966. By February 1968, at the YMCA Nationals, he set the record for the clean and jerk that he broke last week.

Now Lowe sat at dinner after his victory. He was smoking cigarettes, a rare habit with lifters, and one he gives up three or four times a year. But then there is nothing typical about Fred Lowe. He teaches English and phys ed at the Ingham County Jail in Mason, Mich., his home. He gobbles no protein supplements, which for most lifters are only slightly less essential than air and water. And while his competition keeps the vitamin industry booming—3,700 units of vitamin E daily for Rick Holbrook, for example—Lowe takes a small 100-unit capsule, some days. What he does do is train, plan ahead and relax. He said at dinner over his second cocktail, "Each night before sleeping I complete a picture in my head of what I want to do in the next competition. I'll do that for the World Games in Cuba this fall. Already I know who I have to beat."

"Of course, 12 hours a week in the gym doesn't hurt," said Maureen, his wife, whom he met five years ago in a McDonald's parking lot; Lowe was doing back-flips on concrete at the time and she thought he was terrific. "To success in Cuba," toasted Maureen.

"Yes," Fred said dreamily, "Yordan Bikov, here I come."